This week’s visit to Israel by President Obama stirred memories of the years I lived there, a land I called “my second home”. In many respects it was my only home. I visited every corner of the country from Banias on the foot of Mt. Hermon to the Sinai before it was handed over to Egypt, and from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.
I met and forged friendships with many people – Israelis, both Jewish and Arab in Israel and in the Galilee, Beduins and Druze. The visit to Quneitra, at the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone gave me a glimpse of what can be dark in an otherwise inspiring and uplifting land.
That was also when Israel, especially Jerusalem, was the place where people of all nations came together, reminiscent of the words of Isaiah 2:2-3: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”.
It was tourists and pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem (and the Holy Land), not necessarily responding to any specific biblical passage, but inspired by the land of the Bible. Indeed, nowhere else had I seen so many people from almost every corner of the world at the same time. It was magical and inspirational.
Then came the Intifada and all that changed.
There are now walls going up, faster than tourists and pilgrims. In the Sinai border with Egypt – despite a peace treaty between the two countries – a 150 feet high fence is becoming the main attraction. All around the West Bank, walls of separation are the prominent landmarks.
They are more than walls of separation. Sadly, they are walls of self-imprisonment. Fear, and a false sense of security has driven the wonderful land to barricade itself behind walls, shutting out the enemy, real and perceived, as well as the friend.
All this is happening, twenty years after another people tore down a wall of separation, even though the circumstances are not the same. That is why President Obama’s visit reminded me of President Reagan’s words in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev: Tear down this wall!”.